French auteur Claire Denis is an undisputed legend of modern cinema. Over the course of a 30-year career, she's produced work as varied as it is exciting, never settling on one specific style or genre but always finding new, unexpected ways to explore issues of identity and belonging. Many fans have wondered when the director would make the jump into the English language like so many European filmmakers before her. It was both surprising and so very Claire Denis for her to choose to do so with a genre untapped by herself: science-fiction.
Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, High Life presents a fascinating mixture of talents: Denis, arguably the most acclaimed female director of her generation; her regular screenwriting collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau working in tandem with novelist Nick Laird (husband of author Zadie Smith, who worked on early drafts of the screenplay but is uncredited here); legendary French actress Juliette Binoche; and, of course, the leading man Robert Pattinson. Post-Twilight (a film series Denis admits to being a huge fan of), Pattinson has become a go-to indie star for eclectic directors and stories seemingly oppositional to movie-stars like Pattinson. High Life is no exception, and while it's understandable why any actor would love to work with Denis, the film itself proves to be a frustrating experience, albeit a fascinating one.
Pattinson plays Monte, a criminal serving his time aboard a spaceship that's part of a mission to find alternative sources of energy for Earth. He is introduced alone, in a crumbling vessel, and fathering an adorable baby girl named Willow. The rest of the film shows how he got to that place, and how he and his fellow criminals were tricked into participating in a highly unusual series of sexual experiments, performed by a doctor known only as Dibs (Juliette Binoche).
Denis’s approach to space itself is one of lo-fi minimalism and bleak nihilism. Space is vast, dark and its never-ending emptiness is intermittently broken up by the occasional star or overwhelming black hole. This is not a space of wonder, like the kaleidoscopic galaxies of Interstellar or the speed-of-light thrills of Star Wars. High Life depicts the great unknown as exactly that — a place to get lost with nowhere else to go. The spaceship itself is similarly lo-fi, looking like a creaky set from the original Star Trek at times. Things don’t always work, the décor is utilitarian and every little thing serves a purpose, with no room for futuristic frills. It’s exactly the kind of rickety cube a bunch of nobodies would be locked into and fired towards a black hole. If Damien Chazelle’s First Man, the biopic of Neil Armstrong that also screened at TIFF, shows space as something to marvel, High Life makes it seem altogether more pointless.
Consent is the driving theme behind High Life, far more so than anything related to space itself. Dibs has been given the job of seeing if human procreation is possible so far from Earth. The prisoners must donate their sperm or offer their wombs up for insemination, even though the results have proven both unsuccessful and immensely traumatizing for everyone on board. Dibs, played by Binoche with a hypnotic revulsion, values life but not that of any of her prisoners or the women forced to carry these fetuses to term. Not a subtle parallel to current issues, but one that still horrifies nonetheless.
Indeed, the near cosmic horror of sex, reproduction and all the bodily fluids involved make up the real meat of High Life and certainly its strongest parts. One scene where Binoche indulges in some fun times in a room known bluntly as the “f*ck box” has echoes of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin in the way it melds the body with the unknown. Binoche’s fearlessness in this scene is matched only by the sadomasochistic simplicity of this ship’s masturbation room, complete with bondage-style pulleys and a foreboding looking chrome dildo. Sex is beyond human in High Life, and almost as clinical.
Given the nature of consent being the story’s backbone, it felt dishearteningly inevitable that the topic of rape would eventually rear its ugly head. The insemination scenes were a strong enough indication of the themes and their inescapable horror, but there is one scene that remains more troubling than others. Spoilers will be avoided here, but it is worth noting the scene that caused the most walkouts in the screening yours truly attended, and the almost loving way it was shot. The implications are terrifying and the gruesome reality of how it’s done is not softened, but the execution will provoke some strong reactions. At what point does taking a detached point-of-view in your storytelling veer into something more culpable? Frankly, there’s no real answer to that question.
The script issues and related structural slips make for the downsides to High Life. Denis’s work is so often elegiac in its pacing, but for much of High Life, you just end up wondering what the point of it all is. Nihilism can be a striking cinematic tone to use but it needs a firmer hand to keep the story moving forward, lest that hopeless feeling becomes the mood of the audience. It is an issue not helped by some clumsy dialogue and a mixed bag of casting. Binoche is predictably excellent, perhaps the only actress who could make her character work with such malice and sympathy, and it has been a delight to watch Robert Pattinson evolve into an actor of such stoic grace. The rest of the crew fare less strongly, with Mia Goth clearly struggling with such an opaque role that she has translated into shrillness.
It’s clear Denis has chosen sci-fi as the foundations for her to explore issues near and dear to her. Fans of her work will find a lot of those recurring themes here, although High Life often feels like an ill fit for many of them. Still, as frustrating as much of the film is, there are moments of astounding clarity that burst through the muddle that make it a worthwhile watch. It’s probably not the best starting point for Claire Denis novices — that would be Beau Travail — but High Life has rewards for the patient and moments that will linger long after the lights go out.
High Life has been picked up for U.S. distribution by A24 but does not currently have a release date.